The Internet is My Religion

It’s been called “The best video on the internet” and “An incredible story, will restore faith in humankind.” That’s obviously hyperbolic, but I do think you should carve out 12 minutes and listen to what Jim Gilliam has to say, first of all because his story is incredibly moving and second because it represents a significant cultural and religious movement that has been going on for some time but which has rarely been expressed with such clarity and openness.

I don’t wish to write a direct response to Jim’s belief system, but I do think there are several interesting issues that arise from it.

We Are All Interpreters

As you might have noticed, Jim’s story is emotionally riveting. It’s a rollercoaster of visceral highs and lows punctuated with perfect comedic timing and a few genuine moments of nervous intensity.But a good story is never just about a sequence of events. It’s about what we say those events mean.

For Jim, the cancer that caused his deep suffering and took his mother’s life screamed for interpretation and meaning. He looked at all the horror that befell him, and then concluded that the only sensible interpretation of it all was that there was no personal God. On the other hand, when good things happened, like landing a sweet job, getting on the transplant list, and receiving new lungs, he interpreted those to mean that the good in the world comes from the Internet, that is, people connected through technology.

Others, however, might interpret the events differently.

My family spoke with a devote and kind Muslim man a few weeks back, and I suspect he might reinterpret Jim’s story in such a way so as to see Allah as the benevolent force who helped him get his new job and new lungs. Conversely, a post-colonialist or feminist might interpret the events as another case of white male domination. Regardless of which interpretation is correct or why people choose a particular interpretation, something in us demands that decide one way another what our stories mean.

Story + Theological Language = Immense Power

As powerful as Jim’s story is on its own terms, he eventually seems to have thought that it needed something else. So to accentuate the narrative, to really bring the punches home, to give it meaning and carry it forward, Jim infused it with the biblical language on which he was raised. He talks about how the Internet saved him, how someone had to die so that he could live, and about religion, God, creation, and so on.

What we find here is that stories themselves are wonderful, bright little things like candles lighting up a dark night, but when they are combined with the theological language found in the Christian story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, it’s like tossing that candle onto a lake of kerosene.

Ironically, Jim might have first encountered this misappropriation of language, this application of “God” to one’s own ideas, in the ultra-conservative environment in which he was raised. At times we all use words like “God” and “good” for our own purposes, no?

But neither Jim’s childhood audience nor his adult audience noticed this. The audience just responds as if it’s the most glorious thing they’ve ever heard.

The Internet Is Godly

The Internet is pretty amazing, after all.

Remember when Jesus talked about how the Spirit of God is like the wind (John 3:8)? No one ever sees the Spirit, but we see the Spirit’s effects in the gently swaying branches of a willow tree and in the roaring waves of the ocean.

The Internet and its cloud services are kind of like that, too.

We never see the Internet, and yet it’s all around us all the time, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. When one server in the cloud fails, it is instantaneously replaced by another. It is immortal, invisible, and indestructible.

It is very god-like indeed.

The Internet is Humanity in General

But this kind of religion is too sophisticated to worship the Internet itself. No, it is the exaltation of interconnected humanity, or better, of humanity as a cloud service, constantly at our beckon call.

And yet, though it attempts to elevate humanity, under its skin it is actually quite dehumanizing. When someone on the Internet fails you, that is, when a human in the cloud fails you, he can simply be swapped out like a faulty server for someone less error prone and more stable.

This all reminds me of one of one of Dostoevsky’s characters who says,

I love humanity, but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. Brother’s Karamozov Part I, Book II, Chapter 4.

Of course, I mean no disrespect to Jim in particular or to any of his relationships. I mean only to point out that a view of “humanity” that is by definition abstract and fleshless will ultimately be found powerless and unhelpful. But like the cloud itself, it will adapt itself and continue to find a stronger and stronger following.

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

4 thoughts on “The Internet is My Religion”

  1. Thanks for sharing this John. I’ve been reading your blog for a couple years now and have always found it thought provoking and encouraging. This post is especially challenging and relevant.

  2. I found myself on the edge of tears multiple times during Jim’s address. My heart ached often as I heard him share his journey.

    We can speculate as to the “why” Jim believes the way he does about God but I think it’s largely irrelevant. While the experiences of our tragically linear life are the crucible in which are formed our beliefs . . . it’s all so personal that we can only share those experiences on occasion with others.

    What struck me the most about the position that Jim puts forth is that it is entirely congruent with the message that he’s rejected. The Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths (I will use Jim’s approach and call it religion) are all experienced at their best in community. Yet, we must not define community by geography or knowledge. If we are actually “brothers and sisters” then those limitations should not matter.

    The internet thinks little of those limitations. It’s not perfect and we must never confuse community with marketing but the tired old phrase “global community” is more of an apt description of the world in which we experience life than ever before.

  3. He has an amazing story. And I’ve heard his sentiment expressed by theists and atheists alike, though in different words, that God is what we make him. This time he’s repesented as the connected thread of faith and hope through strangers on the Internet. Many keep that concept as concrete, and others let it fade into the pure abstract. People need a construct of keeping hope, especially in despair. I can understand the choice for many to retain belief in the God they know while their world buckles and cracks. A concrete God is kind of like training wheels for balance in a wobbly world.

  4. You chose not to respond directly to this, but, as Christians, what IS our response? And HOW do we respond in a way that isn’t condescending or reactionary? In a world where there are geniuses around every corner (and in every apple bar), how do we observe such great intelligence and such vast lostness and NOT respond? Of course, I KNOW that the answer is to pray and ask for Divine Illusion for the lost because, apart from that, all of us are lost. However, something about that answer fails to satisfy the deep grief in my soul over those who are so misled.

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